Status Competition

My lovely wife Laura drives a 2001 Honda Civic with 155,000 miles on it.

It's been a great little car. It gets 40+ mpg on the highway, runs well, and only once over the entire fourteen years she's owned it have we had to take it in for mechanical repairs.

Recently we were discussing this car. Laura was wondering, reasonably, whether it was time to replace it, when she would do so, what kind of car the next one would be, and so on. Granted, no car lasts forever, and after a certain age, any car can become more trouble than it's worth. But then again, it's running well, we have a backup car, and Laura has a paltry ten minute commute. In theory, we could continue driving her Civic for years.

But there's a far more important reason to keep this little old car, and that's the point of this post. I told Laura, "you're doing your coworkers and the staff in your office a big favor by continuing to drive that car. You're the doctor in your office and the staff there look up to you. You have no idea how significant it can be to see a successful person make a conscious choice to drive an older, non-flashy car. It sets an example where they can do the same and not feel self-conscious about it."

Apparently when I talk I can't follow the dictum omit needless words. So let's boil it down to one sentence: Driving an older car is one way to reduce the level of status competition in the world.

Now, obviously, Casual Kitchen readers already know status competition is a waste of time and money. What many people don't realize, however, is that status competition is also unethical.

Why unethical? Because the things you buy impact the consumption environment of everyone around you. Think of every flashy purchase as having a sort of blast radius. And the people around you--your friends, family, colleagues--are in that blast radius, and their status competition bar goes higher with every flashy purchase you make.

In other words, when we buy flashy things we don't just feed our own status competition urges. We feed everyone else's too.

Are we doing our friends, family and colleagues a favor when we do this? Is this in any way kind or generous? Readers, what do you think?

NOTE: Be sure to see the follow-up post to this article: A False Referent.

Read Next: To Kill a Good Idea

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Melissa said...

Great point!

chacha1 said...

I think that at heart, humans are not far from their less-developed primate cousins. We see something shiny and we want it.

So the primate who brings something shiny into view is not only going to "get to" show off, but will often "have to" defend that shiny thing. In humans this manifests as lifestyle inflation. It's pernicious.

Generally speaking, life with The Thing that Works is more peaceful and comfortable than chasing after the Bigger Better (Shinier) Thing. Sayeth she who still drives a 20-yr-old Accord.

mw said...

"Driving an older car is one way Laura can reduce the level of status competition in the world."

That's almost certain so long as someone compares themselves to her, directly or indirectly.

We're helping tamp down status rivalry, too! Both our honda civic and subaru forester are 1998 models.

Of course, then there's the rivalry to have the oldest car with the most miles on it :-) I can live with that sort of competition if it leads people to be content with the thing they already have instead of inciting covetousness. But in as far it leads to feelings of self-righteousness or smugness, maybe it's a zero sum game.

(And then there are the tradeoffs of older cars whose emissions might not be as clean as newer ones, but I don't know much about that.)

Mike Goldsman said...

People use cars as a fashion accessory, much as a peacock has giant tail-feathers. It's built right into us to want to project power and status and clothes/cell phones/cars/houses all say to the world "Look at my status and health - enter in a relationship with me" - Looks at this awesome pile of shiny objects I've gathered - won't that be great to lay eggs on and improve the chances of raising young successfully to reproductive age?"

Though would anyone consider even a NEW Honda Civic "Flashy?" - that's a subject of another discussion! :-)

Marcia said...

First, I had no idea your wife was a doctor.

Second, I totally agree. I'm impressed with the 2001 car. My good friend had a Civic, 90's era, that she drove for almost 20 years.

Our 2009 Civic, well I hope it lasts until my 2 year old goes to college, then he can have it!

Let's see, my OB/GYN drives a BMW, as does my dentist (though I think my dentists husband bought it for her. Now ex-husband. And he was unemployed so he bought it for her with her own money. But I digress.)

Anyway, I guess that means our company President is doing great with his Mustang. I don't know what year it is, but I've known the guy since 2000. He's had the car since then. I think it might be a 1998 because that's the year he finished his PhD.